Posted: November 18, 2014
It’s all very well to frame genomics – the science that combines genetic information with functional trait information – just as a crucial Canadian agriculture business tool but there’s higher motive at work here.
“The reality,” says Delta Genomics CEO Colin Coros, “is the world needs to know how to produce enough food for nine billion by 2050. We believe that Genomic technologies will play a big part of solving that puzzle.”
So it is that Edmonton-based Delta Genomics, a University of Alberta spin-off “project” is now a fully independent, fee-for-service, but not-for-profit genomic testing service that is set to directly improve Canadian livestock and thereby indirectly enhance world-wide animal protein production.
Delta Genomics began as a partnership of agricultural research interests, all driven by the need for Canada, especially in Western Canada, to be on top of the fast-emerging genomic technologies that are changing the livestock breeding industry.
Delta Genomics refers to itself as the service arm of Livestock Gentec, a leading genomics research centre based at the University of Alberta, created and supported by Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA).
TEC Edmonton has been working with Delta Genomics since its conception, helping the company get started, setting up governance, grant applications, regulatory guidance and market development. Delta Genomics is housed in TEC Edmonton’s TEC Centre for startup companies and organizations. Coros himself moved from TEC Edmonton, where he was a business development associate, to head up the fledgling genomic testing centre.
At the start in 2011, Delta Genomics received a crucial $3.5 million grant, over three years, from the federal Western Economic Diversification program to invest in some of the world’s most advanced genomics equipment.
Three years later, right on schedule, Delta Genomics has become an independent, not-for-profit genomic service provider.
“Three years ago, we celebrated the start of Delta Genomics in this room,” said Member of Parliament Laurie Hawn at the ceremony. “Today, we celebrate the end of federal funding for this project. It is great to see applied research being turned into something beneficial to society.”
In those three years, operating out of its TEC Centre laboratory, Delta Genomics has produced 380 full-genomic sequences for cattle, and partially genotyped 50,000 to 60,000 animals.
All the major Canadian beef breeds in Canada are now using genomic-based technology, leading to easier pedigree verification, plus the identification of traits as per genetic testing.
“It’s like transitioning photography from the darkroom to the digital age,” says Coros.
Delta Genomics is now a financially self-sustaining, not-for-profit company mandated to increase profitability, sustainability and competitiveness of the Canadian livestock industry.
“The Canadian beef industry is chasing what dairy has accomplished through genomic technology,” says Coros. The slower rate of adoption in the Beef sector is due a difference in the industry structure . While a dairy farmer keeps long-term records of his dairy cow, because they provide life-long income, a beef calf will pass from a cow-calf operation to a feedlot, to a packer.
Once fully integrated, genomics can support all the segements of the beef value chain – more weight for calves, feed-to-weight-gain ratios in feedlots, meat quality for the packer/consumer.
“In the beef ‘seed’ stock industry, genomic breeding technologies are rapidly advancing,” says Colin. “The opportunity now involves sharing that genomic information so that it can benefit the much larger commercial industry.”
Canada and Delta Genomics is still very much at the beginning of realizing the genomic potential of animal breeding.
“The USA is ahead of us,” says Coros. “We are still building the genomic data bases that will define animal traits of the future. The more genotyping we do, the higher the accuracy of the traits become, which translates into better tests for the industry”
“But we are well positioned – because we export beef to the world and have better traceability.”
Genomic emphasis has been in cattle, but great progress has been made with swine. “Pigs are actually ahead of beef but behind dairy. Pig producers are focusing on production quality and health traits – genomics to breed disease-resistant pigs.”
Genomic technologies can be applied to all animals. Its potential in aquaculture is huge. “Fish farms are breeding for more robust, faster-growing fish,” says Coros. “Canada has a huge opportunity to increase its acquaculture footprint and genomics can help to do that.”
It’s about bringing genomic technologies to all Canadian livestock species, “providing genomic tools to everybody so we can select the best production animals in the world,” says Coros. “In 10 years, if every animal in Canada is not genetically tested it certainly will be genomically influenced. We’re well on our way to making that a reality.”